War and Peace and War

The Rise and Fall of Empires, Peter Turchin 2006

Turchin’s ‘radical new theory of world history’ is as bold as the various encomiums on its covers – although that from the THES: – “Turchin’s view…promises a great deal..“- or from Anatol Lieven who the author quotes at some length – “Excellent” – in their terseness perhaps suggest that the publishers were somewhat desperate in finding kind things to say.

For my part “[e]loquently argued, W&P&W is a rich pageant of crucial historical stories ..” sort of captures it, minus the crucial

So what is this new perspective? Again end cover remarks claim this is from the author’s expertise in evolutionary biology.  This is not true; it is much more likely to be found in the author’s ‘technical’ book, Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall, from 2003, which has the equations this volume eschews. Indeed, sprinkled through are terms like psychohistory: “the branch of mathematics which deals with reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli” ; Cliodynamics; imperiogenesis and imperiopathosis, the last three seeming to have been coined by the author to clothe his rather interesting hypotheses. I am not sure how this relates to evolutionary biology. Jared Diamond’s rival tome Guns, Germs and Steel is more closely rooted in biology. The two perspectives are not compatible, as Turchin admits.

If anything, Turchin’s work follows that of economic historians – Kondratiev’s long waves come to mind. His book is enlivened with statistical constructs showing extremes of wealth in the ruling classes sustained over the course of empires, and the role of capital in funding wars of conquest or absorption. The key element he brings to the table is the centrality of social capital – or asabiya – a term he borrows from Ibn Khaldun from the 12th century, an astute commentator on world affairs.

Turchin argues that asabiya determines the tide of imperial success and downfall measured by relative equality in wealth distribution on the one hand, and on the other by tribalism in the face of existential threat. As evidence, for instance, he cites the defeat of a large force of Romans in the Danube valley through guile and cooperation among the otherwise warring Gaulish locals. This is attractive writing and, for those not familiar with the late Roman era beyond the marches, fascinating and informative.

The other hypothesis he employs with effect concerns where old empires are challenged and where new empires arise. This he attributes to the vitality of a barbarian frontier, where world views clash. This is appealing to enthusiasts for geography of the ancient worlds before the congealing of nations around fixed borders. Rapine aside these frontiers – visible as river highways or in the extreme by monumental fortifications crossing the countryside, mark the barrier between protection by the hegemon, and the ungodly beyond the pale.  

What they disguise though is the great drifts and lightning advances of peoples moving through Europe in these early times, taking advantage of the low asabiya of countries under sway of large empires. Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls was never complete, the Gauls remained a present danger throughout the Roman period; but it was their sacking of Rome that created the martial empire of the early Christian era, drawn together finally by this shock of confronting an enemy with no respect for the Roman arts and sciences of war, that had served them until then so well against their local rivals and the Greeks.

Peace gets short shrift in this account of world history: asabiya is good if you are fighting for your survival; or in the stratified societies that produced the generals and the mercenaries. It may be applied to small communities sustaining a life outside the benefits and costs of the protection of imperial rule. Indeed it may be amplified in societies built around the belief in the dignity of ordinary people and their aspiration for the good life. But at the end of the day these isolated stands of social capital are easy pickings for a well-organised empire builder who can count on the disaffection of people on the frontiers, without attachments, whose cultural identity congeals around the memorilessness of imperial largess. 

Turchin has assembled an impressive array of economic statistics to back his theory, not just (we are assured) for the cases he presents in this book as illustrations. This leaves the reader adrift on the wider ocean of his expansive thesis.  Basing history on fluctuations and differentials of social capital begs measurement questions of its own. 

The ordinary currency of history is in documents, places, beliefs, symbols, timelines and memory of the participants. Social capital is incorporeal, observed in its fracturing or its potency in contests of will or survival. It is attractive to the psycho-historians as it strips history of its cultural clothes in favour of more primal biologically referenced impulses. It makes of history a blank surface with rises and falls, colour and light, and of all human endeavour something complete, and very dark in its implications. Whatever our aspiration we will be brought down by our incoherence. Peace is an interval of little consequence; only the contest of wills as groups compete for space, influence and power ultimately matters.

This is Social Darwinism with a twist: the good parts of human nature – our inclination to cooperate and to act selflessly on behalf of others in our sphere of comprehension – crystalise into a tradeable substance that can be harvested by outsiders for purposes external to our humanity. Our lives become submersed in this supra human medium; our endeavours condemned to the tides of a monstrous counter history. 

Eternal peace or eternal war: both have been used to explain the march of history, and both states have adherents among the thought leaders of our time. Both seem to relate to the wider conceptual space of human evolutionary psychology, and how we can conceive history to justify the present, to excuse, or ignore, or glorify in, the past, and to prepare for the future. 

But this must be a case where morality trumps metaphysics. War is never inevitable; empires are not the only model of tolerant coexistence; social stability can rest on more natural harmonic principles than fear or dread or ignorance. While we are indeed slaves to our evolutionary natures and whatever super-narrative this imposes, the austere truths of scholarship, with counterparts in public life, exemplify our common humanity, free of the mirage of domination and control.


Peter Turchin, The Rise and Fall and Rise of Empires, 2010

Abbe de St. Pierre, Eternal Peace, 1660

Jarrod Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

Other Reading

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Time

A.J.P. Taylor, Course of German History

E.H. Carr, What is History

Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: political arguments for capitalism before its triumph, 1977